State panel will spend $412 million on highway repairs, pedestrian safety

(Enterprise file/Oregon Department of Transportation)

Oregon will use more than $400 million in new federal transportation money to finish some large highway projects and make roads more accessible to pedestrians, the Oregon Transportation Commission decided this week. 

The state Transportation Department is set to receive about $1.2 billion over the next five years as part of the recent federal infrastructure law. Most of the state’s share comes with strings attached, but the state has broad leeway in how to spend $412 million.

The commission sought input from Oregonians throughout the winter on how to spend it, acknowledging that there isn’t enough money to fix all of Oregon’s transportation issues. 

“This is a large amount of money, roughly $1.2 billion over six years, but the need is even larger,” Commission Chair Robert Van Brocklin said. “Funding to solve all the problems or even address all the problems is simply not there.” 

Van Brocklin said public feedback guided the decision. Local elected officials and the public talked about needing active transportation, like walking and biking, reducing highway congestion and ensuring money is spent throughout the state.

When projects are done, more Oregon children could walk safely to school, drivers may see fewer bottlenecks on highways near Wilsonville and Bend and more people could walk or bike along main streets in their communities. 

Most of the money will be spent by the Transportation Department, though tens of millions will be distributed as grants to local governments and community organizations. The commission will pick specific projects over the coming months. 

A plan approved Wednesday would dedicate less than half of the available money to highways and state roads, with another large chunk for pedestrian needs. In total, commissioners allocated:

• $95 million for curb ramps and other accessibility improvements along state highways, as part of a 2017 settlement over violations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act that requires the state to upgrade thousands of curb ramps. The state was already working on replacing curb ramps, and the federal funding frees state money to be used elsewhere. 

 • $75 million to fix and maintain highways.

• $50 million to make state highways that double as main streets in communities friendlier to walkers and cyclists.

• $50 million for other highway improvements that the Legislature didn’t fully fund, including the intersection of U.S. Highways 97 and 20 in Bend and an interchange along Interstate 5 that connects to the cities of Donald and Aurora.

• $40 million for the Transportation Department to use as matching funds for future federal grants.

• $40 million for other operations and maintenance costs.

• $30 million to create more safe walking or cycling routes for children to get to school. Starting in 2019, the state started providing $1 million annually for safe routes to school. 

• $15 million to help local governments reduce greenhouse gas emissions through city planning that reduces the need for cars.

• $10 million for a new pilot program that would give grants to community organizations for bike helmets, bike racks, bike share programs and van pools intended to help low-income people get around.

• $7 million for business and workforce development, such as apprenticeship programs run through the Transportation Department and the Bureau of Labor and Industries that aim to get more women and people of color working in construction.

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